As I mentioned in my last post, love after death can get caught up in magical thinking.  When I said that my magical thinking was mostly a replay of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, I was forgetting that Plato considered Orpheus a coward, and Alcestis the one with the real guts to die for her beloved.  In his dialogue about love, the Symposium, Plato tells us:

… Alcestis, daughter of Pelias, … alone was willing to die for her husband, though he had both father and mother. … and when she achieved this deed, it was judged so noble by gods as well as men that … [her soul was] sent up again from Hades, …. In this manner even the gods give special honor to zeal and courage in concerns of love. But Orpheus … they sent back with failure from Hades, … for he was accounted … to have lacked the spirit to die as Alcestis did for the sake of love, when he contrived the means of entering Hades alive.

I can just imagine what Plato would have made of the tale spun by the pseudo-Orpheus Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Briony the narrator has destroyed the love and lives of her sister and her sister’s lover with a lie. Briony goes on to give us as readers or viewers of the movie another lie, a phony narrative that rescues sister and her lover from death.  Just as Orpheus tries to free Eurydice through his music, Briony tries to revive the lovers through her story-telling.

The ending of Atonement, when the elderly Briony confesses to her youthful lie, is a tour de force of saccharine self-justifying, self-deception in which Briony tries to draw the reader into her charade. She argues that we readers would not be persuaded by the “pitiless” previous versions that told the truth about the death of her sister and her lover. There would be no purpose served by the telling us what really happened. “What sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? … Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?”  Briony says, “I couldn’t do it to them.” Why not? The answer is all about Briony, not them. “I’m too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism.”

When the narrator and the other real criminal co-conspirators “are dead, and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions. Briony will be as much a fantasy as the lovers” who were reunited in Briony’s tale. So, what’s the harm with indulging in romantic dreams? As for the reader who asks “what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love.”

Many modern interpretations of the Orpheus myth focus on Orpheus the artist. Eurydice only matters as a creation of the artist, and the artist comes first. Some versions even make Orpheus’ descent about retrieval of his artistic inspiration, or the fleeting thought that he forgot to write down.

Briony poses the problem as one of how can the artist save the artist. How can the artist who committed the crime “achieve atonement” through her art “when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?”

Since there are no higher powers, no one outside to appeal to, to reconcile with, or to forgive her, no one else to “set the limits and the terms,” there is “[n]o atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”

Describing her sister as “fortuitous” and deprecating novelists such as herself “even if they are atheists” are meaningless, gratuitous flourishes meant to add to the high-minded tone of this piece of self-serving claptrap. Modern audiences are said to laugh at the speech of Alcestis’ husband Admetus about how much he has suffered from her death, which saved him from dying. Why, then, does Briony on the page and on the screen bring so many to tears, including me the first time I saw the movie?

Briony continues, “I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.” And then she ends by trying to entice the reader with the possibility of writing the fantasy that the two lovers attend her final birthday party. We should feel sorry for her. She’s too old and tired to carry through. “But now I must sleep.”

Styron and his narrator Stingo were conscious that they were trying to make art out of the horror inflicted on others in Sophie’s Choice. The closing scene in Sophie’s Choice evokes some discomfort because the reader and movie viewer know that they are being manipulated by words that are totally fiction and a tableau that is very artfully staged.   For instance, in the book Stingo examines the stack of records to which Sophie and Nathan listened as they died. It includes Gluck’s heartrending aria Che farò senza Euridice“what will I do without Eurydice?”

Still, on critical reflection, the reader/viewer of Sophie’s Choice does not resist, does not pull back, does not feel any shame at the pleasurable tears arising from participating in such poignant sadness. Briony, however, just leaves the self-reflecting reader/viewer slightly ashamed for indulging in such “poignography”


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